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NGOs Warn of Threat to Civilians in Congo


A coalition of more than 60 humanitarian and human rights organizations says widespread violence continues to threaten civilians in Eastern Congo, despite a peace agreement signed six months ago. Derek Kilner reports from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi.

In January, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo signed a peace agreement with more than 20 armed factions operating in the country's east to end fighting that had displaced more than one million people. The signatories agreed to a ceasefire and to protect human rights and the civilian population.

But six months later, numerous militias are still operating and preying on civilians.

A report by the Congo Advocacy Coalition, a group of 64 non-government organizations that includes international groups like Oxfam and Human Rights Watch as well as Congolese organizations, says that at least 150,000 more people have been displaced in Eastern Congo since the January agreement. The groups also say more than 200 civilians have been killed, and more than 200 ceasefire violations recorded in the same period.

According to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo, known by its French acronym MONUC, during the course of the past six months, the number of ceasefire violations has dropped considerably, and major clashes between the government and militias have largely disappeared.

But spokesman Sylvie Van Den Wildenberg, says this has not led to a drop in human rights violations.

"Even though the incidents are decreasing, and their frequency is decreasing, we keep observing that the situation of human rights and the humanitarian situation are not really improving," she said. "We have increased the access of the humanitarian actors on the ground. But unfortunately we keep observing that the population is very worried and too scared to go back to their village and their place of origin."

The coalition says that women have been particularly vulnerable, with more than 2,000 rapes reported in North Kivu province during the month of June.

The NGOs are calling for the government and the various armed groups to act on their commitments to provide security for civilians in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, near the borders with Rwanda and Uganda. They are also urging the international community to appoint a special advisor on human rights for the region.

The coalition says humanitarian access has also been constrained by insecurity, with nearly 40 attacks on aid workers this year. It says the 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Eastern Congo are spread too thin.

Wildenberg agrees that the mission is stretched, but she says it is doing what it can with the troops available.

"The Eastern Congo is indeed a very huge territory," said Widenberg. "But telling that we are under resourced, we will always be under resourced because we will not ever be able to put one blue helmet behind every single Congolese. So we have to work with what we have. We have now approximately 10,000 troops for the two Kivus and we are trying to do the best we can with what we have."

With the high profile peacekeeping mission in Sudan's Darfur region struggling to deploy even half of its forces, an increase in troops for the Congo mission may not be likely.

Eastern Congo has been wracked by years of fighting since Rwanda's ethnic conflict spilled across the border following that country's 1994 genocide. Militias have also fought for control of the area's natural resources, which include gold and coltan, a metallic ore used to make batteries for mobile phones.


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